The Kayak Chronicles

by Darren Caffery

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ALLIGATOR RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

 Milltail Creek

Monday May 21, 2007

          

On the second day in the OBX, our intention was to paddle the Whipping Creek portion of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  Our group has paddled this beautiful, pristine wildlife area in the past and part of what keeps it so beautiful and pristine is its remote location, which is not easy to access.  There are a number of logistical issues regarding access to this area which were discussed with the group in the planning stages of this trip, weeks in advance of our arrival to the OBX. 

In the past, we've attempted to access the creek via primitive and unpaved access roads which meander through the wildlife refuge and then through portions of the Dare County Bombing Range installation of the US Air Force.  These roads start out graveled and then quickly deteriorate to dirt paths which are riddled with mud holes and soft dirt areas.  Although not securely gated, these desolate, remote roads end up with warning signs prohibiting further passage without permission from the bombing commander.  Post 911, these are not warnings we could ignore.  As a result, past attempts to access to the creek via this route have been unsuccessful. 

On two separate occasions in previous years however, we did manage to access the Whipping Creek by launching at Grapevine Landing on the opposite shore of the Alligator River. This route requires an almost 3.5 mile open water paddle of the Alligator River.  On a typical day, the Alligator River requires solid paddling skills, as the slightest wind on this waterway creates some challenging paddling conditions. For those familiar with NJ waterways, the Alligator River is similar in size to portions of the Barnegat Bay, but without the rampant development and the powerboat traffic.  The shores of the Alligator River in this area are virtually undeveloped. In past years, although our group had been able to navigate successful crossings of the Alligator River and make our way into the Whipping Creek and Whipping Lake, more recent attempts to access the area using this route have been unsuccessful, due to a large number of downed trees, making the creek to lake passage unnavigable.

    

This year, a newly published, local paddling guide listed the Whipping Creek area as accessible through the dirt refuge and bombing range roads, but it did warn of the horrendous condition of the roads.  Despite the USAF warning signs, the paddling guide stated that road access is allowed on most days of the year, except for special gate closings which are indicated by calling a specific phone number with a recorded message.  

After calling the USAF number which did not indicate any gate closings, we planned our adventure to the Whipping Creek and Lake via the primitive access roads.   And so the adventure began ......... 

We left our rental home in the village of Salvo at about 8:30 am and after a 40 minute drive to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, we turned off US64 to begin our "off road" adventure to the launch site.  As expected, the gravel road soon deteriorated to dirt paths which were filled with crater holes and areas of soft dirt and mud. As our caravan of vehicles navigated the paths, dust filled the air and as we traveled deeper into the woods, the density of flying insects increased.  There were many butterflies along the way, however watching flies the size of grapes swarm outside the windows of the vehicle made me wonder how safe it was going to be to unload the kayaks or to even get out of the car.  The vehicles approached each crater hole area with caution and bounced up and down as they plowed through them.

          

After almost 40 minutes of this off road adventure, we surprisingly reached a closed gate and this is the point of the trip where the Laws of Mr Murphy seemed to take over!  After the dust from the road settled, we realized we were missing two vehicles from our fleet!  We also soon realized that cell phone signals are nonexistent within the boundaries of the bombing range so our communication was also cut off.  After waiting about 10 minutes, there was no sign of the other vehicles, and with no other reasonable options, we decided to turn back.  Within a short distance we found the lost vehicles, one of which had just been "unstuck" from a large mudhole. (a separate story unto itself!).  After a brief change in plans we headed for an alternate launch site to a less remote portion of the refuge just a few miles back on the trail.  Within a few more miles, however, another one of our vehicles encountered a problem at one of the crater holes.  Although the vehicle made it through the rugged terrain, the kayaks bounced violently on the rack system causing it to become disengaged from the roof of the vehicle and also caused some damage to both the rack system and the roof of the vehicle. After some group problem solving amidst the huge biting flies, the damaged portion of the rack system was thrown in the back of the vehicle and the kayaks were secured to the vehicle with makeshift pads and straps.

        

Despite the problems, we decided to continue a paddling plan, so we made our way a few more miles to an alternate launch site.  After a brief period of relaxation practice, deep breathing and lunch, we launched into the Milltail Creek at about 12:45 pm from a small remote bridge on Milltail Road in the inner depths of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  The temperature was again perfect for paddling with temps in the mid 70's and a slight breeze to keep us cool in the hot sun. We paddled the dark tannic waters of the tranquil creek for about 5.5 miles until we reached the Buffalo City Road Bridge which I've renamed "relaxation bridge".  While some relaxed on the bridge, others walked the nature trails.  While walking on the trail, Tim and I heard a small alligator lunge into the water from a sunny patch of shoreline.  We then heard it making a rather loud croaking noise but were unable to see where it was. 

   

  

After our break, we launched back into the creek and began the return paddle back to the takeout.  The return paddle took us through a very narrow tree canopied area which was sheltered from the wind and the sun. Although we didn't see much wildlife, we could hear the tree frogs and a few pileated woodpeckers along the way. We all arrived safely back at the takeout at about 6:15 pm and after paddling 12.8 miles.  Despite a few problems and a change in the paddling plan, it was a day of full of adventure in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. 

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